What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you in the classroom? If you are applying for a job at Sandringham school in St Albans you need to be willing to answer this question, and other more unusual ones, which will be fired at you by a panel of students as part of the staff selection procedure.
Don't be fooled into thinking that this is the easy bit of the day. According to acting head Janet Lewis, the students have high expectations and their questions are astute. Their views are taken seriously by the appointing panel. In fact, every successful candidate last year was either the students' first or second choice.
It's a system that has evolved from giving candidates an opportunity to meet with a group of students to ask them questions about the school. Students began to ask questions as well as respond to them and the head, Stephen Andrews (currently seconded to the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit), saw the potential to make it a formal part of staff selection.
The students I spoke to suggested that their experience on the receiving end of teaching gives them good qualifications for being involved and for asking the right questions. As some of them said, you can either spend your time moaning about your teachers or you can try to ensure that your school appoints good ones.
The panel is chosen from members of the student council and all year groups are eligible. Anna Martin, now in Year 8, participated in the panel last year and although she was more nervous than the teachers the first time, she sees no reason why age or less experience should rule her out. After all, as Katie Scorer, who's in Year 11, pointed out, those in Year 7 were going to have to live with the consequences of the decision longer than anyone else.
Before each interview, Annie Thomson, student welfare manager at Sandringham and a survivor of the system, works with the panel to agree questions, some of which are generic, such as "What's your favourite book?", while others are more subject specific. Annie sits in on the interviews but plays no part, though she has the responsibility of conveying their views to the appointing panel.
The students believe that each question should be asked for a reason, so the first one is always to give the candidate an opportunity to relax. Last year's interviews with potential heads of science started with, "Having walked round the campus, have you noticed that it is in any way different from other schools?" David Biggs, from Year 11, and Matthew Bristow, from Year 12, say the students want to know that they will get on with their potential teachers because it is easier to learn if this happens. Angie Carr, in Year 11, looks for someone who will make you want to learn the subject, and sometimes interviews candidates for her least favourite subjects so she can ask, "How could you make me more interested in your subject?" During the interview, Katie Scorer works out whether her friends would mess about or respect a candidate and might ask about the most difficult issue a candidate has had to deal with, how they did so and why they found it difficult.
All the students were looking for teachers who had a sense of humour (hence the question about their most embarrassing incident); were confident but not blase; would stand out but not be too extravagant; would be in control but also be a good listener; were friendly but not too friendly; had knowledge of and enthusiasm for their subject and could get this across to students; and would fit in with the discipline ethos at Sandringham (no standing in front of the class and shouting).
Would-be candidates are advised not to dress like something out of The X Files as one (unsuccessful) person did and not to wear too much make-up or jewellery (very irritating for students who are allowed neither). However, a sense of the ridiculous, such as a teddy-bear tie, tends to be well received.
The successful head-of-science candidate, David Feldman, said he was very tense when he went into the interview but the students soon put him at his ease. He quickly appreciated that it was a real interview and an important part of the day, certainly not a walk-over.
It also made him realise that if this was how students were treated and how they behaved, this was a school he wanted to work in. He remembered the students' honesty and said that although they were always polite, they didn't just nod in agreement with everything like some adults might.
Fran Copeman, now an English teacher at the school, knew this was part of the procedure before she arrived for interview last summer. She was surprised at the reaction of some colleagues at her previous school who did not approve of involving students in this way but, although it was a gruelling experience, Fran liked the relationship between staff and students. For her, it was the high point of the day and confirmed that she wanted to teach at the school. She also says that, because she now teaches two of the students who interviewed her, it is a constant reminder that she is working for them as well as for the head.
So far, no one has refused to face the student panel but some candidates address their answers to Annie Thomson rather than to the students. Some patronise and talk down to the students. One refused to answer the question about the most embarrassing incident, and she didn't get the job.
Professor Kate Myers is director of the Professional Development Unit, University of Keele